Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Deathstroke #23. Written by Christopher Priest (Black Panther, Inhumans: Once And Future Kings) with art by Diogenes Neves (Demon Knights, Green Lantern: New Guardians), inker Jason Paz (Convergence, Batman & Robin Eternal) and colorist Jeromy Cox (Grayson, Justice League United), this issue highlights the dysfunctional family at the core of this series while delivering exciting superhero spectacle. This review reveals major plot points.
How do you regain the trust of people you have let down at nearly every turn? How do you accept a person’s change of heart when your relationship is one long series of disappointments? These are the questions currently being explored in DC Comics’ Deathstroke, the most riveting family drama in superhero comics right now. Christopher Priest’s run on the series has made Slade “Deathstroke” Wilson more compelling than he’s ever been, largely by focusing on how he’s a total asshole who is directly responsible for the hardships that befall his friends and family. The first year of Deathstroke made this very clear as it explored Slade’s fundamental character flaws and how they affect those around him, but the book’s second year has him going down the path of redemption as he confronts those flaws and tries to change his destructive behavior.
The last time I wrote about Deathstroke for Big Issues was for the standalone issue #11, which told a chilling story about the current epidemic of violence in Chicago and the dangers of responding to it with more violence. The Slade Wilson who appeared in that issue was a very different person than the current Slade, who has given up the mercenary life to try being a superhero by starting up his own team: Defiance. He’s brought on his estranged ex-wife and his two children in hopes that he can use this new endeavor to reconnect with them, but everyone is highly suspicious of this new Slade and paranoid that this is just another mind game from the master.
While “Defiance” began in Deathstroke #21, this bold new direction for the title actually started with the issue before, the epilogue to the crossover between Deathstroke, Teen Titans, and Titans. “The Lazarus Contract” had Slade travel back in time for multiple failed attempts to prevent the death of his oldest son, Grant, and Slade’s experience outside of the timestream profoundly changed him. He’s had a spiritual awakening, and he’s decided to give up his villainous ways and pursue a heroic path in hopes that he can repair the broken relationships in his life. Deathstroke #20 was steeped in Christian ideology and scripture, and while Slade would never say that he’s accepted Jesus Christ as his savior, he does believe that he saw the face of God during his trans-temporal experience.
This shift for Slade’s character makes a lot of sense given that Priest is an ordained Baptist minister, and he’s taking inspiration from his faith for this new era of Slade’s life defined by salvation and temptation. It’s not often that a story fully captures the gravity of fantastic superhero elements on a person’s psyche, but Priest is exploring how an experience as transcendent as time travel would deeply change someone. Slade has been selfish for this entire series, but seeing first-hand the grander landscape of time and the universe has inspired him to become a force for good in the world. That’s a big deal for Deathstroke, who has proven himself to be a truly deplorable person time and time again. Slade wants to change, and prove to the people he loves that he can sustain that change, but that also means a constant inner battle against the temptation to revert back to his old ways.
Deathstroke spends a lot of time with the supporting cast members, so when Priest gives Slade an emotional moment, he makes it count. Slade still has a lot of trouble opening up to his family about his feelings, but he’s become more honest with friends like Wintergreen and Dr. Light, Defiance’s first opponent. While the team took on Dr. Light’s holograms in the last issue, Slade sat down with his old colleague and told him about his revelation that a life of villainy has left him with a massive bank account but cost him the people he loves most. In this week’s issue, Slade admits to Wintergreen that he still feels the temptation to go back to the dark side, to pick up his sword and feel “the disconnect from humanity required to be indifferent to its use.” He admits that he doesn’t enjoy being self-aware and trying the hero thing, but he also knows he can’t go back to his old life, even though he’s being pulled back in by a summons from the Secret Society Of Super-Villains. In just a few issues, Priest has made this interior tug-of-war completely believable, and that push and pull is present in every decision Slade makes.
Priest writes dense plots filled with details that don’t reveal their importance until after the fact, and his scripts are very good at reminding readers of what happened in the past. This could feel like clumsy recap in the wrong hands, but Priest ties this information to character development. When Rose recounts her personal journey over the course of the series during a tense sword fight with Slade, she’s breaking everything down so she can process the pain her father has put her through and make him know how much his actions hurt her. Deathstroke is also a rare superhero comic that takes advantage of editor’s notes, and Alex Antone regularly jumps in to let readers know key background information and where they can find specific scenes if they want to go back and revisit major moments.
Seeing a page full of editor’s notes draws extra attention to how Priest is constantly planting seeds for later stories, and small moments of this issue will inevitably play bigger roles, like Power Girl’s discovery that Rose’s sword is from the future, not the past. She theorizes that Rose could have carved her own name into the sword from later in the timeline and found a way to send it back, suggesting that this series will continue to jump around in time after the events of “The Lazarus Contract.” And while Defiance is at the center of the story, there’s also a mysterious subplot involving an armed escort service and a Hmong power struggle in New York City. This issue reveals that Defiance team member Terra is an employee of that escort service, and given Rose’s Hmong heritage, she’s bound to get sucked into this conflict as well.
As indicated by Ryan Sook’s dramatic cover, the fraught relationships between parents and their children are at the core of this issue, beginning with Rose and Slade facing off in a sword fight that allows her to express her aggravation and rage toward her father. The first page of their showdown is divided entirely by diagonal panel borders by penciller Diogenes Neves, creating a sense of frenzy that isn’t in the pages before, which are laid out with perpendicular borders. The fight is wild at the start, and that quality is reinforced by Jeromy Cox’s coloring, which rotates through bright shades of blue, pink, and purple.
As Rose vocalizes her frustrations with her father, she begins to calm down. The second page of this fight still has diagonals to intensify the action within the panels, but they aren’t as severe. When Rose pierces her father’s armor with her sword at the end of the page, the top border of the panel is on a clean horizontal axis because she’s focused and in total control in this moment. Rose has wanted to act on her hatred of her father for so long, and stabbing him in the gut is a cathartic moment. Until it’s not. As much as she despises him, Rose is hit with regret when she eventually realizes that she actually just stabbed her father in the gut. This emotional journey isn’t explicitly stated, but the creative team gets it across in how the dialogue and panel compositions change over the course of the page.
Rose initially thinks this moment of vulnerability is all part of Slade’s trickery, even when blood starts squirting out of the wound onto her white uniform. The first three panels have Slade looming above his daughter, but once his body slumps and starts to fall, Rose starts to consider that she may have actually hurt him. She switches between calling him “Slade” and “dad,” with the latter introducing a sense of intimacy between father and daughter that has been absent for most of their relationship. Brutal violence is the thing that ultimately brings them closer together, although the tension in their relationship isn’t going away anytime soon, especially with Slade discovering Rose’s secret marriage to his old tech guy, who convinced Rose to marry him so Slade wouldn’t kill him.
Slade’s son, Joey, is also going through some major tribulations right now, grieving the murder of his fiancée, Etienne, and afraid that he can’t trust either of his parents. The scenes between Joey and his mother, Adeline, are far more tender than Rose and Slade’s interactions, and the reason they are hurting is because they love each other so much and hate that Slade has damaged that connection. Joey sees that Slade brings out the worst in his mother, and he wants her to move past him rather than continue competing with him. Joey’s late fiancée is also tied into all of this given that she was sleeping with Slade, and Joey is still trying to figure out who killed her because both of his parents deny it.
The conversation surrounding Etienne delves into some complicated personal territory as Joey accuses his mother of killing her, either because she was black or because she was a woman. Adeline responds by telling Joey that race had nothing to do with her feelings toward Etienne, but gender did. Adeline is proud to have a gay son, but that’s part of the problem. Joey isn’t gay or straight, and Adeline has trouble accepting that, believing that him marrying a woman would have been wrong and a betrayal of who he is. Bisexuality/pansexuality can be a challenging concept for people from older generations, and while Adeline thinks herself to be progressive for loving her gay son, there’s a limit to her understanding. This is a very compelling personal conflict, and making this change to Joey’s sexual orientation has opened up fascinating storytelling avenues for the character.
Joey and Adeline’s first conversation is interrupted by a Defiance alert, and the page turn brings a significant shift in scale and motion as it reveals Power Girl holding up an ocean liner while Jericho and Kid Flash rush onto the scene, trailed by bright beams of blue and red. The perspective isn’t quite right, but that doesn’t get in the way of the image’s impact. This is a superhero comic, it doesn’t have to adhere to strict visual rules. As the great Jack Kirby demonstrated, the superhero genre gives artists the opportunity to throw out the rules out if it helps them create a more powerful image, and this shot of Defiance in action hits hard after the smaller scenes that precede it.
Jason Paz and Jeromy Cox are essential to maintaining artistic consistency on Deathstroke. With the book shipping twice a month for most of its first year, having a single colorist made the transitions between artists less jarring. Penciler Carlo Pagulayan departed the series to work on James Robinson’s upcoming Wonder Woman arc, but his inker, Jason Paz, has stuck around to keep the linework looking crisp and smooth. Priest’s scripts demand a lot from artists when it comes to emotional storytelling, and it’s always fascinating to see how artists with more spectacular superhero experience adjust to his scripts. This often brings out new facets of their talent, and Diogenes Neves’ work on this current arc is a prime example, showing off the more expressive qualities of his art.
Take the panel of the Defiance members listening to Slade’s overblown lecture about the responsibilities of wielding a sword: Rose is annoyed, leaning up against the wall with her arms crossed, chin turned up, and eyes staring up at the ceiling. Joey also has his arms crossed, but he’s standing more alert with one eye twitching. You get a sense that listening to his father’s bullshit causes him physical pain, but he’s still on guard because you never know when Slade is going to turn on you. Tanya is completely disinterested in Slade’s speech and looks down at her tablet because she has other work to do. And then there’s Wally West, who is looking at his teammates to see how he should react because he has no idea what the hell is going on. He’s a source of comic relief throughout this issue, because when you’re scared and confused, you might as well crack a joke.
This creative team crafts exuberant action sequences in this issue, but what’s most impressive is how they depict the smaller character moments. Those are the scenes that have made this run so engaging, and Priest understands that readers won’t care about characters unless they know what drives them, what hurts them, and what they need from the people around them. The Wilson family has been rotten at its core for so long that it might never heal, but if a monster like Deathstroke can see the light, there’s still a glimmer of hope.